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Beth Gibbons/Henryk Górecki - Symphony of Sorrowful Songs Music Album Reviews

The Portishead singer and conductor (and film-music icon) Krzysztof Penderecki deliver a surprisingly disquieting take on Górecki’s canonical symphony, a piece so familiar that it’s often taken for granted.

We will never be done with Henryk Górecki, the Polish composer whose Symphony No. 3 won some obscure cultural lottery by entering the popular consciousness in a way 99.999 percent of new orchestral works do not. The work is quite simply deathless: Just three years ago, avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson offered his own version. Stetson, normally associated with more pitiless and hair-raising stuff, like the score for the modern horror classic Hereditary, bowed before the solemnity and the soft curves of Gorecki’s piece with a faithful interpretation, as does nearly everyone who approaches it.

And now comes Beth Gibbons—the voice of Portishead, and thus, by extension, the purveyor of trip-hop’s most vivid bad moods. Gibbons is not a powerful singer in the athletic sense—she’s never going to threaten the structural integrity of a chandelier. But her grainy, sour wail, coated with streaks of dried spilled coffee and nicotine stains, strikes deep chords of clammy fear, of desperation, of vulnerability.

Her voice, from the moment it arrives over the breath-bated haze of strings in the first movement, is arresting and close to your ear. Symphony No. 3 has a nightmarish undertone that tends to get smoothed out in dulcet recordings—one of the texts is meant to be the sound of a woman calling out for her murdered child—and Gibbons brings that squirming danger right to the surface.

Part of the tension comes from hearing her untrained voice scale these rocky heights. Her vibrato, tight and trilling and barely controlled, sounds an awful lot like someone fighting off a panic attack. This would get her dismissed from a traditional opera audition, probably, but it is magnificently effective at sending raw shudders through what can be a pretty well-worn work.

That second movement, in particular, has been wrung dry through a few too many TV spots—and yet again, here, when Gibbons sings, it feels positively Gothic. Gibbons learned the Polish text, despite not speaking a word of the language, and she manages to clear that hurdle impressively, too; there is no distance, no remove in her performance. She is accompanied by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Krzysztof Penderecki, himself an icon of Polish classical music (that’s him you heard on The Shining and The Exorcist) and the orchestra seems to feed off her brittle, searching interpretation. The sheer intensity of the string playing here produces a diamond-like hardness, a glittering beauty that feels like it could cut you. It fairly thrums with nerves, which is a remarkable achievement for a piece that for decades has been associated with a sort of classical easy listening.

One of the reasons Symphony No. 3 remains evergreen is that there is nothing remotely “modernist” about it—whatever the term might mean to you, whether it’s fragmentary collage or sharp fierce angles or a complete lack of sentimentality. Pierre Boulez, the enfant terrible of mid-20th-century modernism, allegedly shouted “Merde!” from the audience during the symphony’s premiere. It is flowery, it moves in big billowing breaths, and it could have been written in a time before there were cars driving on paved roads, maybe by Anton Bruckner or Gustav Mahler. It has long since outlived its disdain, but there is still something magnificent about what Gibbons, Penderecki, and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra have accomplished here: They have managed to make the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” feel dark, even dangerous.

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